Into the Mental Basement
- Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion by Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Yale, 201 pp, £25.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14034 7
Those who offer scientific explanations of the pervasiveness of religion in human life are usually not religious themselves, and their explanations are not intended to be compatible with the self-understanding of those who are. Even if scientific explanations predict the persistence of religion, they tend to undermine any claim to the truth of religious beliefs. They are essentially explanations of religion from the outside, and are thought to override explanations from inside a religious point of view.
Vol. 32 No. 17 · 9 September 2010
Thomas Nagel, in his review of my book Natural Reflections, mistakenly infers that I do not ‘believe in’ a ‘reality that exists largely independent of our convictions’ (LRB, 19 August). The major ontological implication of my view of cognition, however, is not that there is no independent reality but, rather, that the specific features of what we interact with as what we come to name ‘reality’ (or, in other idioms, ‘Nature’, ‘the world’, or ‘the environment’) are not prior to and independent of those interactions but emerge and acquire their specificity through them. There is, then, no ‘problem of incoherence’, as Nagel thinks likely, in my reference to a creature’s effective interactions with its environment. For ‘environment’ in such a reference is not, as he argues (or wonders: his phrasing is circumspect), unavoidably understood ‘as something real in a sense more independent than constructivism allows’. It is understood as something real in just the complex sense that constructivism tries to elucidate.
Contrary to Nagel’s report, I do not claim that ‘scientists who think they are investigating objective reality are deluded.’ I speak in the book neither of delusions nor enlightenments, scientific or religious; I do not frame my own accounts in terms of what things are really like ‘at bottom’. Nagel argues that, because scientists ‘usually assume that … science investigates a reality that would exist even if there were no science’ and theologians ‘believe that religion too, or at least some religion, is … at least in part a way of understanding how things really are’, ‘it will not be easy to persuade them that there is no more need for reconciliation between science and religion than between playing the violin and practising law.’ He misses my point here and misstates the analogy I use to illustrate it. To be sure, insofar as science and religion are both seen as bodies of propositions about ‘how things really are’, efforts to reconcile them are inevitably severely strained. I make just that point in the book. But what I argue in the passage quoted is that neither science nor religion is reducible to a body of propositions or credos (sciences are also, among other things, investigations and technologies; religions are also, among other things, practices and identities) and, therefore, that though contradictory as logically assessed, they need not be in conflict in people’s lives and experiences. ‘For many people,’ I write, ‘accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.’
Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Chapel Hill, North Carolina